Thursday, July 28, 2011

Let's Talk

     As many of you know, the language barrier is one of the most difficult challenges to overcome for Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide. Without language, the simplest tasks are transformed into seemingly insurmountable barriers. Just the idea of mailing a letter, finding a bathroom, using public transportation, or ordering at a restaurant makes your heart race and your palms sweat. Establishing genuine, meaningful relationships is next to impossible without language. Even the most talkative people can be forced into silence by the language barrier—not out of choice, mind you, but because they haven't got the skills to understand (much less contribute to) the conversations flowing all around them. The sudden loss of speech makes a person feel stupid, vulnerable, and helpless. Likewise, each small gain in language learning and each successful linguistic interaction is accompanied by a triumphant feeling of accomplishment. For example, a few weeks ago, my friend, Suzanna, and I purchased long-distance train tickets and (thanks to a mixture of Kazakh and Russian) we successfully communicated to the clerk that we wanted seats next to one another, despite the fact that we'd be getting onto the train in different cities. As we walked away from the office, tickets in hand, we gave each other a congratulatory hi-five. What else could we do? For the first time in 4 ½ months, we had just communicated a somewhat complex need using two foreign languages (Suzanna used Russian, I used Kazakh), and our need was met! Hi-five!


            I started learning Kazakh the day I arrived in Kazakhstan, and in PST we had 5 hours of Kazakh class every day where we would speak and speak and speak. Within the first few days of moving here, however, I became a listener. I am not a listener by nature. Until I came here and my voice was literally forced into submission, I was constantly talking. I wouldn't necessarily call myself a "one-upper", but at home I sure do love to throw around my 2 cents. And even now, when I get the opportunity to speak in English (on the phone or with other PCVs), I find the thoughts tumbling out of my mouth with reckless abandon, much to the detriment of my English grammar (which is taking a turn for the worse, I'm afraid). But when I'm confronted with Kazakh, I become a listener again. As I learn more Kazakh from my host family and through independent study, I'm becoming bolder with my speech, but it's a slow process. I'm comfortable speaking freely with my host family because they don't mock my poor grammar and limited vocabulary, but my palms still sweat and my cheeks still burn when I have to speak to strangers.


            As if the challenges of learning Kazakh aren't enough, I happen to live in a village in North Kazakhstan that is half Kazakh speaking, and half Russian speaking. Most Kazakh people in my village can speak both languages freely, but the Russian people in Saumalkol typically speak worse Kazakh than I do, if they speak it at all. Despite all the gains that I've made in Kazakh over the last 4 ½ months, I'm still fairly helpless when it comes to Russian. Up until a few weeks ago, whenever I had to communicate with a Russian person, I would use a series gestures, grunts, and about 5 poorly placed Russian words (mostly "niet" and "da") to get my point across, or I would spit out the only Russian phrase I knew ("I don't speak Russian"). I finally resigned myself, however, to the fact that to get by in northern Kazakhstan, I needed to learn a little Russian. So I went to a Russian language camp in the northernmost city in KZ, Petropavlovsk, with about 27 other PCVs. During that week of camp, I learned how to count in Russian and recognize a few verbs and personal pronouns, so when I came back to my village I still wasn't able to speak much Russian, but I was able to understand far more than I had before. Now that you have a little background regarding my language struggles, let me relate two short stories that perfectly illustrate my epic, unfinished battle with the language barrier.


            Story #1: I arrived in Petropavlovsk for Russian camp and was faced with the task of taking a city bus to the university, where the camp was being held. I knew that I needed the number 5, but I had no idea when to get off the bus, or what the university looked like. I got onto the bus and asked the driver (a Russian, as luck would have it) "University?" To which he nodded and furrowed his brow quizzically at me. As I took my seat, I scanned the bus and did a little racial profiling, hoping that the Kazakh-looking woman seated near me actually spoke Kazakh (in northern KZ, many people who are Kazakh by descent primarily speak Russian, and while they can usually understand Kazakh, they are sometimes reluctant to speak it, especially with someone who looks more Russian than Kazakh, like myself). With a sudden spurt of courage, I leaned over and busted out my best Kazakh to the friendly-looking lady across the way:


Me: Excuse me, do you speak Kazakh?

Friendly Lady (bewildered): Yes… Do you speak Kazakh?

Me (very relieved): Yes! Can you please tell me where the university stop is?

FL: Hmm…I'll ask the driver, and then I'll help you. Where did you learn Kazakh?

Me: Thank you! I learned Kazakh in Almaty- I'm an English teacher in Kazakhstan.

FL: You speak so well! (Leaning over to the Kazakh woman in the next seat and pointing to me) She speaks Kazakh! Isn't that excellent?!

Me (aw, shucks): Thank you very much…I'm still learning.

Small talk for several minutes…

FL: This is your stop! Are you meeting someone? The university will be closed now.

Me: I'm meeting my friends…somewhere.

FL (getting off the bus with me): Let me help you.

Me (shocked and even more relieved): Thank you so much!


Zhanna (aka Friendly Lady) walked several blocks with me until we found my friends, only to bid me farewell and turn to walk back to the bus stop and wait for the next bus. I have no idea what stop she needed, but I know that she greatly inconvenienced herself to make sure that I would be alright, and all because I was brave enough to open my mouth. I was blown away by Zhanna's kindness (and also pleasantly surprised that she has the same name as my host mom from PST who, if you'll remember, rescued me when I was lost on my 2nd day in KZ), and I had to congratulate myself for using my language so successfully. Hi-five!


            Story #2: After successfully completing a week of Russian camp and conducting several successful Russian transactions in my village (such as buying fruit from the Russian vendor at the bazaar and asking a Russian pharmacy clerk where I could find contact solution and then successfully following her directions and finding it), I felt on top of my linguistic game. And then one fateful morning as I was waiting for the bus, my confidence was dashed to the ground by a disgruntled dadushka (grandfather-type man, pronounced dad-oosh-ka).


DD: Hey girl! What time will the bus get here?

Me (mentally preparing to knock his socks off with my Russian): In 5 minutes.

DD: blah blah blah…(lots of Russian)…blah blah?

Me (oh crap, my cover's blown…what did he say?): I'm sorry, I don't know. I only speak a little Russian. I speak Kazakh and English.

DD (confused): (I didn't understand what he said for pretty much the rest of the conversation, but from his gestures and facial expressions, I'm going to venture some reasonable guesses at what he was trying to convey) What do you mean you only speak a little Russian?! Why do you speak Kazakh?! Look at you! You must speak Russian!! Blah blah blah (I think this was the same question he tried to ask before, maybe something about work…)?

Me (getting flustered and forgetting how to say "I don't understand" in Russian): I don't know…I…Kazakh school…work…English (forgot how to say "teacher" in Russian)…

DD (visibly agitated): What!? Blah blah blah (another question of some kind)??

Me (getting defensive): …I don't know…I speak Kazakh and English…just a little Russian…

DD (pissed): You speak Russian!! You just told me when the bus was coming! You said 'I speak a little Russian' in Russian! You speak Russian! Blah blah blah (more questions…)??

Me (really defensive and giving up on the idea of reasoning with this man): I don't know! I don't speak Russian! I don't speak Russian!!

DD (seriously pissed, waving his cane in the air in my general direction): You speak Russian! You speak Russian! Why I oughtta…!

Random Passerby: What's going on?

DD: Who is this girl? She says she speaks Kazakh and not Russian!!

RP: That's the new English teacher at the Kazakh school. She doesn't speak Russian. She speaks Kazakh.

DD: How do you know?

RP: (didn't quite catch what she said, but there was a small article in our village newspaper about my arrival, and I think the random passerby told the disgruntled dadushka that she read about me in the gazette)

Me (told you so): I don't speak Russian.


That was perhaps the longest 5 minutes I've experienced since I arrived in Kazakhstan. It's a hilarious story now, but at the time, this disgruntled dadushka ruined my day. I was feeling so good about all I had learned at Russian camp, only to find out that I had miles and miles to go before I could justly give myself a hi-five for my Russian language skills.


            As I said in my last post, there are mountaintops and valleys in every aspect of Peace Corps service, and I think that language learning has a set of highs and lows of its own. The smallest interaction can foster a new friendship, or it can put you in danger of being smacked with a dadushka's cane. Language learning isn't easy, and it's going to take me the rest of my 23 months here to gain full confidence in my language abilities. Despite my frustrating, labor-intensive, Troy-esque, siege of the language barrier, I've learned that it never hurts to speak. I'm not a listener by nature. I'm a talker, and I intend to continue as such, even in this new environment, with its assortment of challenges. If nothing else comes of my attempts at speech, at least I'll get some good stories.